most sustainable foods

What Are the Most Sustainable Foods for Those Looking to Eat Sustainably?

Jane Marsh - March 4, 2020

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Sustainability has become a buzzword in recent years as the movement has transformed from a niche interest to a major revolution. This concept recognizes that everything is connected, and we must be willing to consider and respect those connections. Those wishing to eat sustainably realize that this concept also applies to food on a profound level. Adopting a sustainable diet, a diet filled with the most sustainable foods, reduces human impact on the earth while maintaining — and even improving — an individual’s health.

No hard-and-fast rules define a sustainable diet. However, some foods may be more sustainable than others. Before considering which foods are best, you must first understand the connection between where food comes from and how eating it affects both the environment and future generations. 

Why Does It Matter?

Most of the food on your supermarket shelf is the product of an unsustainable food system. Producing food on an industrial scale wreaks havoc on the environment by contaminating water, causing disease and stripping the soil of nutrients. Large-scale farming is using mass amounts of non-renewable resources, like water and land, and dumping harmful byproducts, from greenhouse gases to toxic runoff, back into surrounding ecosystems.

The air you breathe, the water you drink and the ground beneath your feet have likely become tainted by food production in some way. It negatively affects the environment, but it also impacts future generations. If we use up all the land, water and resources to feed ourselves now, what will remain for our children and grandchildren? To protect our future, we must begin looking for new ways to conserve our resources, and eating the most sustainable foods is one way to achieve that. 

Which Are the Least Sustainable Foods?

Meat, dairy and animal products are typical topics of conversation when considering a sustainable diet. These foods, in particular, have significant impacts on the earth, using up to 83% of global farmland and contributing more than half of all food emissions. And, as global demand for meat increases, deforestation is also becoming a major issue. Meat farmers clear forests and make room for pastures. Once livestock has grazed, the farmers leave the field barren and devastated. Beef cattle also pollute waterways with waste and runoff, threatening marine ecosystems and our water supply. Packaged, highly processed foods are also unsustainable options.

Foods wrapped in plastic contribute to waste that takes hundreds of years to decompose, and aluminum cans may last for up to 200 years in landfills. Some cans and plastics also contain chemicals and preservatives that are toxic to humans, like BPA. Overly processed and packaged foods also require higher energy input to produce. If we make less of this food, we’ll have more unprocessed ingredients available in their natural, more nutritious forms.

Which Are the Most Sustainable Foods?

As global food demand increases with population size, many are choosing alternative, more sustainable food sources. For instance, replacing animal protein with nuts and legumes ensures a healthy diet and a clean environment. Vegan and vegetarian diets rely heavily on these plant-based proteins, reducing land use and greenhouse gas emissions and making them the most sustainable ways to eat. Whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes replace meats, refined grains and sugars to provide more nutritious and earth-conscious diets.

Shopping locally is another viable option that can help you find some of the most sustainable foods. Purchasing fresh produce from farmers’ markets and local food programs in your area reduces food miles, thereby minimizing air pollution and eliminating the process of packaging, shipping and distribution. This type of diet also promotes eating more fruits and vegetables instead of meats and processed foods. And, when you shop locally, you help keep small, sustainable farming operations in town and large industrial farms out. 

Yes, You Can Still Dine Out 

Shopping locally and eating sustainably is all about understanding where your food comes from and how it arrived on your plate. However, this information may not be so readily available when you eat at a restaurant or fast-food joint. Of course, you likely can’t avoid eating out entirely, so learning how to eat mindfully can help you make sustainable decisions even if you don’t prepare the meal yourself. For instance, abstaining from the least sustainable menu items — lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farm-raised salmon — can make an impact. 

You might also consider choosing a farm-to-table restaurant that offers locally sourced ingredients you could find at your farmers’ market. Or, order fruits and vegetables that are currently in season, so there’s a better chance they’re sourced locally rather than flown in from more tropical locations. It’s also beneficial to inquire about organic menu items, which don’t have pesticides and don’t produce toxic runoff. And, if you choose fast food, consider ordering a salad or supporting a chain like Chipotle, which purchases only responsibly raised pork from sustainable farms. 

Getting Started 

Changing up your diet is always easier if you start small. Although you may feel convicted to go cold turkey — pun intended — and kick all meat out of your diet immediately, making a significant change may only lead to you reverting to your old diet. In that case, your new sustainable lifestyle wasn’t very, well, sustainable. If you want to create lasting change and a positive environmental impact, you’ll have to start slowly and make small changes to your diet. Start by eliminating unsustainable foods or animal products one by one, or commit to only eating these foods a few days a week. Or, focus on shopping locally and cooking at home, instead of eating out. Whatever habits you can commit to and stick to will ultimately be the most sustainable, both for you and the planet.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.